In Jobs Aren't Enough, authors Roberta
Rehner Iversen and Annie Laurie Armstrong followed 25 families for
five years—through the economic boom of the late 1990s and
the bust of the early years of the 21st century—to learn about
low-income families who were trying to "get ahead" through
Q: Can you describe your methodology?
A: We followed the families in five cities—Philadelphia,
St. Louis, Seattle, Milwaukee, and New Orleans. We sat in on the
families' job training classes and day and overnight shifts at work.
We spent time in their children's preschools and daycare centers.
We also talked to at least 1,000 other people involved in these
families' efforts to move ahead, such as school principals, pastors,
Q: And what were your results?
A: We concluded that this country needs a completely
new way of thinking about how families move ahead financially. We
need a new national policy that will ensure greater economic mobility.
Our book questions myths and assumptions about economic mobility—e.g.,
"Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps"—that actually
prevent low-income families from getting ahead.
Q: Hence your book's title—"Jobs
A: Jobs are the expected way for families to get
ahead financially. However, more and more two-parent, working families
are poor, despite hard work and initiative. In reality, their struggles
are due to factors beyond their control. We've seen seismic shifts
in the socio-economic landscape over the past several decades. There
have been huge changes in labor markets and companies. There have
been enormous shifts in welfare policy with the focus now on quick
employment instead of skills training. On top of that, many people
face inadequate housing, poorly-funded schools, inadequate wages,
or racial discrimination.
Q: Can you discuss some of the myths you demystify
in your book?
A: "Initiative Gets You in the Door."
This old saw assumes that education and work are available to everyone,
but that [job seekers] only have to seize the opportunity. In reality,
the education of entry-level workers doesn't match the needs of
companies in the 21st century. "Hard Work Pays Off " assumes
that firms have career ladders that enable workers to move up in
responsibility and income. But that's not how most companies operate.
Instead, globalization, downsizing, outsourcing, and flexible management
decrease job security. And the expression "Pull Yourself Up
By Your Bootstraps" overlooks nepotism and social contacts
in business. Today's entry-level workers don't have these social
resources. They might be young dropouts or parents or immigrants.
The families in our book showed grit, self-reliance, and perseverance.
But their Horatio Alger-like big chance never came. That Alger message
is too simplistic for today's complex world.
Q: Can you describe some characteristics of
the families you followed?
A: In many ways, they are like millions of other
American families. They want what almost all parents want—a
good job, to earn enough to support a family, health insurance and
other benefits, decent and safe housing, good schools for their
children, enough food, assets and savings, and a little money leftover
to enrich their children's lives. But these families also are very
different from many other American families. In the richest large
country in the world, they work full-time, year-round, but they
still do not earn enough to support their families.
Q: What sort of jobs do they have?
A: More than half are in manufacturing, and another
44 percent are in the service sector. Over the course of our study,
those numbers shifted with more people working in the service sector
and fewer in manufacturing, which mirrors the national trend.
After five or more years of work, most of the parents have remained
in or just above entry-level jobs with limited health insurance
or training, and troubling safety practices.
Q: What recommendations do you make in your
book that can help these people?
A: We say that jobs are important, but jobs
aren't enough. Instead, there are four important social institutions
in families' lives: first are workforce development programs, which
encompass colleges, community colleges and a host of programs that
train people; second are the firms for which people work; third
are their children's schools; and last, public policies. These institutions
play a big role in economic mobility, but instead of being interconnected,
they operate separately. We need to build ties between these institutions
that will benefit workers, firms, and communities.
Q: So, ultimately, what do you recommend to
start solving this problem?
A: We need a new way of thinking about economic
mobility. We need to find ways to even out the wage differentials
in firms and resolve wage inequities. We need local, outside entities
to bring together colleges and training institutions, policymakers,
children's schools, individual job seekers, firms, and families.
We need better strategies for retention and advancement, including
financial literacy programs and tax credits. Families also need
more support for health care, mental health, housing, childcare,
children's education, and transportation.